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Asia

Will the Abe-Putin meeting settle their nations' island dispute?

As part of his Europe-Russia tour, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 6. The two are expected to address the territorial row besetting the bilateral ties. Martin Fritz reports.

The meeting between Abe and Putin - set to take place in the Russian black sea resort city of Sochi - will be a tricky one for the Japanese side, as it is taking place despite an appeal by US President Barack Obama that Abe not visit the country, citing Moscow's differences with the West over its actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Tokyo has traditionally shaped its foreign policy to suit the wishes of the US - Japan's ally and security guarantor. However, PM Abe's resolve to settle a long-standing territorial dispute over a chain of islands seized by the Soviet Union following Japan's capitulation in World War II and sign a formal peace treaty with Moscow has led the Japanese administration to ignore Washington's objections.

"The upcoming talks will be focused on the current state and the prospects of development of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy as well as in the humanitarian field," Russian news agency TASS reported about Abe's trip, adding that the discussions will also feature an "in-depth exchange of opinions regarding pressing international issues."

The Japanese side, in addition, hopes to make substantial progress toward resolving the 70-year-old territorial dispute, which has cast a dark shadow on the bilateral partnership.

A long-standing dispute

Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II because of conflicting claims over islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, which Japan calls its Northern Territories - and Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils.

To be precise, the long-standing feud relates to three islands (Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, and Shikotan) and the rocky Habomai islets (as shown in the graphic above), all of which Russia seized after WWII. But for convenience, it is customary to speak of a four-island dispute.

It is often assumed that all of these islands are small. But they are not. While the Habomai islets are insignificant in size and uninhabited, and Shikotan is relatively small, the two other islands are quite large.

Indeed, if considered to be still part of Japan, Iturup/Etorofu and Kunashir/Kunashiri would be Japan's fifth and sixth largest islands respectively. Only the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku are bigger.

The issue has been very difficult to solve over the past decades, not least because Japan and the Soviet Union were on opposite sides of the Cold War.

In the mid-1950s, however, the outlines of a possible deal did emerge and this was described in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. At that time, the Soviet side offered to transfer the two smaller islands (Shikotan and the Habomai) to Japan as a gesture of goodwill after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Kurilen Inselgruppe Russland Japan

There are presently around 17,000 Russian citizens living on the disputed islands

But the Japanese side decided the offer was insufficient and has continued to press ever since for the return of all four islands.

Fresh efforts

Since taking office, Prime Minister Abe has made pursuing better ties with Russia one of the priorities of his foreign policy. To this end he has sought meetings with President Putin as frequently as possible.

However, the progress in bilateral ties has been eroded following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the consequent US-led sanctions imposed on Moscow. Japan, too, followed its key ally and introduced sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, Abe's efforts to develop ever closer security ties with the US and Europe have also complicated the Russo-Japanese relationship.

Against this backdrop, analysts note, the meeting in Sochi will give Abe the opportunity to assess Putin's willingness to reach a compromise solution over the island dispute. But they remain skeptical about the possibility of both sides achieving a breakthrough on this front during the trip.

While Moscow says it wants to keep control of all four islands, Tokyo is pushing for their return, stressing that it does not want to sign a peace pact without reaching an agreement on the islands.

Moreover, the reputation enjoyed by the two leaders also acts as a hindrance. Both Putin and Abe are perceived as nationalists and any compromise solution over the issue could only result in their losing face domestically, observers say.

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